The Low Down on iBeacons and BLE Technology


5 minute read
Alumni: Charlie Harman

Alumni: Charlie Harman

Marketing Manager

Digital Insights

iBeacons & BLE technology seem to be everywhere at the moment. So what’s all the fuss about? Our blog will tell you what iBeacon & BLE technology involves and what Calvium has been using it for…

The concept of a beacon has been present for years. Most simplistically, a beacon is an object that conspicuously announces its presence and attracts attention.  The most obvious example of this is a lighthouse.

An iBeacon however, is a beacon that manages to do this using bluetooth low energy technology that emits a radio signal. A simple way of describing an iBeacon’s action is ‘shouting in the dark.’

You may remember Bluetooth from your old mobile phone or your handsfree headset. Originally designed to replace cables, the technology required you to create a manual setup connection in order to transfer data. The cumbersome setup procedure meant that, admittedly, Bluetooth has not always been the easiest technology to use.

That, however, was the old Bluetooth. Known predominantly as; Bluetooth 4.0, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) or Bluetooth Smart, the new bluetooth can be used for much more advanced technology. Used for things such as Smart Watches and Fitness Trackers, bluetooth devices such as this do not require an individual ip address as they are companion devices. They instead connect to the internet through your phone. Bluetooth 4.0 is designed to transmit short bursts of data. Your Smart Watch and Fitness Tracker then picks up the short bursts of data as it is listening to a certain address and then displays it on your phone via an app. Data transmission such as this has a much lower power consumption, hence: Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE).

Here at Calvium we have experience of working with BLE. We have recently developed a groundbreaking app which was unveiled at the recent annual Light + Building trade fair in Frankfurt. This app, made for Danlers lighting company, uses BLE to manage lighting controls remotely from your mobile phone in order to save energy in factories, schools or even your own home.

iBeacon is a formatted string of data; a string of numbers, or bytes, which say certain things. Contained in this string of data, is a UUID (a randomly generated ‘universally unique ID’, which is so large that the chances of using two of the same is nearly impossible). The UUID is used to identify the company/brand/application etc. then you have a major and minor ID.  The major could be used to identify a specific building, or shop, and then minor identifies the individual iBeacons themselves. The iBeacon then broadcasts this information every second.

Estimote iBeacon
Estimote iBeacon – pound coin size comparisonBLED112 USB Bluetooth DongleBLED112 USB Bluetooth Dongle

A few examples of iBeacon hardware are; an Estimote beacon (left), which looks like a little rubber iceberg that you can stick on walls or ceilings, a BLED112 USB Bluetooth Dongle (below, left) that you can programme to be an iBeacon, and a Raspberry Pi with the correct bluetooth dongle, programmed to transmit a beacon ID. You can also programme your macbook to broadcast a beacon ID if it has Bluetooth 4.0 on it, which is useful for testing.

People were unable to recognise how useful this high standard and widely available outside technology could be until GPS became so widely used on mobile phones. Since then, there have been many attempts at creating an indoor location system that works in the same way GPS does outdoors. Ultrasound, Wifi, Radio, Ultra-wideband, Infared, Magnets, RFID and Compasses have all been used to try and create an indoor GPS effect. However due to practically, cost or even legality – none of these technologies have been able to do to indoor navigation what GPS has done for outdoor navigation; the ability to know where you are without having to make any effort.

iBeacons are very much the technology of the moment because they have the potential to be the indoor GPS and are cheap, simple and inconspicuous (they are about the size of a matchbox).

Here at Calvium, we are extremely excited to be working with UCAN, an organisation working with visually impaired young people in Wales, on an indoor navigation research project.  The aim of the project is to make arts and arts venues more accessible to the visually impaired. We are currently working together to create a kind of indoor satellite navigation system in the hope that it will help people who struggle to navigate in unfamiliar buildings. iBeacons could help improve the way users identify where they are.

UCAN GO MASTER SAESNEG from UCAN Productions on Vimeo.

We have also been working with Pervasive Media Studio Residents ANAGRAM, on their immersive live documentary, Door Into The Dark. This live experience replaces the visual with the sensorial and explores the psychology of being lost. iBeacons were used to trigger content in the participants headphones as they felt and explored their way around a darkened space.    

However exciting the opportunities may be, iBeacons are not without their foibles. Essentially, they are stupid. They can’t listen to you or store any data; all they can do is tell you that you are quite near to them. This function can be intrusive. So if you don’t trust an app, don’t let it talk to Bluetooth, or just delete it!  However the flipside of this argument is that because they are so ‘stupid’ they can’t spy on your information.

Sam Machin and Calvium’s own Tom Melamed gave a lunchtime talk on iBeacon technology on Friday 14th of March – you can view their slides from the talk here.

Calvium circle logo